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Oklahoma mistakenly gave bonuses to these teachers. Do they have to pay it back?

A second grader raises her hand in class at Nichols Hills Elementary School in Oklahoma City in 2020. Under a new bonus program aimed at addressing teacher shortages, over 500 educators received bonuses of up to $50,000.
Whitney Bryen
Oklahoma Watch
A second grader raises her hand in class at Nichols Hills Elementary School in Oklahoma City in 2020. Under a new bonus program aimed at addressing teacher shortages, over 500 educators received bonuses of up to $50,000.

As Kristina Stadelman cradled her 3-day-old son, she said she was trying not to focus on the demand letter from the Oklahoma State Department of Education in front of her.

"I haven't had the time to really wrap my head around it," she said. "I didn't want to ruin this moment. I want it to be enjoyed and I don't want to have something like this bearing over me."

Stadelman teaches special education to kindergarten through fourth-grade students in the Oklahoma City metro area. In 2023, she applied for the state's new Teacher Signing Bonus program, which aims to address a critical shortage of early education and special education teachers. The $16 million program drew half its funding from unused federal pandemic relief money and the rest from funds allocated for students with disabilities.

To be eligible, educators had to commit to teaching elementary or special education for five years and couldn't have taught full time with standard certification the year before in Oklahoma. Teachers working in rural or high-poverty schools qualified for bigger amounts. The department gave 522 teachers these bonuses, ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 each.

Stadelman was awarded the maximum amount, with roughly $29,000 hitting her account after taxes. She used that money to put a down payment on a bigger car for her now-seven-member family, and to support her household while she took time off with her baby.

But in January, she got a letter that turned everything upside down. The State Department of Education notified Stadelman that she was not eligible for the bonus after all because she taught in an Oklahoma school district the year before.

"It [said] I have to pay it back by the end of February," Stadelman said. "I'm like, how am I supposed to do that?"

Kristina Stadelman received this letter from the Oklahoma State Department of Education demanding she return her full $50,000 bonus. The department said she wasn't eligible.
Beth Wallis / StateImpact Oklahoma
StateImpact Oklahoma
Kristina Stadelman received this letter from the Oklahoma State Department of Education demanding she return her full $50,000 bonus. The department said she wasn't eligible.

The department demanded the entire $50,000 back, including what had been taken out for taxes.

Stadelman said she misunderstood the requirements of the program. Records show she listed her employment history on the application, which included five years of teaching. She said she wondered why the department sent her the money in the first place if it had her disqualifying information from the start.

"If I was trying to falsify, I wouldn't have provided that information," Stadelman said. "They made the mistake. Not me."

Stadelman isn't alone. The state Department of Education confirmed to StateImpact Oklahoma and Oklahoma Watch at least nine teachers were overpaid to the tune of $290,000 in bonuses. That included five teachers who did not qualify for the program and four who received bonuses larger than they should have.

The department then made efforts to claw back the money just months after it was distributed.

Kay Bojorquez was on the receiving end of that effort.

"When I read the [notice from the department], I threw up," she said. "My financial situation is not going to be able to withstand this – this is going to ruin me."

She had applied for the program after a supervisor encouraged her, mistakenly believing she qualified.

"As far as I understood, I met all the criteria," she said. "That's why my name got put in the hat in the first place."

State Education Department spokesperson Dan Isett did not say why the department disbursed the bonuses before fully verifying applicants' information, only that verification is ongoing and high bonus payouts are being audited. After the StateImpact investigation aired, the department said only four teachers were affected. It has not responded to attempts for clarification.

"Your questions have emerged in the middle of our ongoing process of rolling out, administering and ensuring accountability in this program," Isett wrote in an email. "When we are completed with this project, there will be a final report highlighting all the applicable data and results from the program — including the steps taken to protect taxpayers."

Isett said excluding a handful of teachers currently under review, the incorrectly awarded amount represents less than 2 percent of the total recipients. He said the errors shouldn't diminish the overall success of the program, which awarded bonuses to over 500 teachers to fill classroom vacancies.

But state legislative leaders swiftly condemned the department's actions.

State Reps. Mark McBride and Rhonda Baker, who chair education-related panels at the statehouse, said in a news release the department shouldn't demand teachers pay for its mistakes in approving applications.

"As a businessman, if I make a mistake, I have to own that," McBride said. "I can't go back to my customer and say, 'You have to repay me,' because I made a mistake in our contract. The same should happen with the State Department of Education."

Their Senate counterpart, Education Committee Chair Sen. Adam Pugh, told Good Morning America he's willing to pursue a legislative solution.

"If the state wants to go claw back that money, they will use the heavy hand and the full force of government to do that," Pugh said. "And it's our job as legislators not to champion that, but to step in and say, 'whoa, this doesn't make sense.'"

What comes next for these teachers?

Despite the mistakes, State Superintendent Ryan Walters wants to expand the program. He said it was ultimately successful at encouraging teachers to help fill the critical shortage. In a presentation to lawmakers, he noted 201 recipients teach in the critical shortage area of special education, and that 67 teachers came from out of state. His budget request for next year includes more than $60 million for teacher bonuses and tutoring stipends.

A week after the investigation aired, Walters told reporters the department is working with affected teachers to find a solution.

"There is a path forward that does not require a payback from those teachers," he said, floating the idea of committing the teachers to work longer than the original agreement's five years. "And we are able to offer that to those teachers to say, look, we want you to keep the money, we want you to stay in the classroom."

But days later, he alleged in an interview that a handful of teachers put "inappropriate or inaccurate information on their applications."

"We've worked with those four individuals to say 'we want you to stay in the classroom, but we're also going to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,'" Walters said.

Stadelman said all the back and forth has left her unsure of where she stands.

Originally, the department told her she had until the end of February to return the bonus before it goes to a collection agency. But last week, she said the department told her that deadline is no longer in place.

She plans to return to the classroom, but said she regrets applying for the bonus in the first place. She recently joined a lawsuit with fellow teacher Bojorquez against the education department and Walters.

"It's been very mentally exhausting for me," Bojorquez said. "This is one more thing that I have to deal with that's been dumped on me, because someone made a mistake."

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma's public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Beth Wallis
Jennifer Palmer